Monday, May 31, 2021

A Day for Rememberin': Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

This was originally posted on my other blog, Randomly Reading, but since it is Memorial Day today, I thought I would posted it here, too. 

A Day for Rememberin'
Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day
written by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Harry N. Abrams, 2021, 40 pages
Most of us don't really know much about Memorial Day except that it's a time when we honor those who lost their lives in combat defending United States and the democratic principles upon which it was founded. And maybe some of us know that it was originally called Decoration Day, a day when families would go to the cemetery with flags and flowers to place on the graves of their fallen loved ones. But how many of us know about the origin of Memorial Day?

Well, now Leah Henderson has explored this question and has written a picture book for older readers that tells the story of one such origin and has chosen Eli, the ten-year-old son of formerly enslaved parents, as the narrator. It's 1865 and the Civil has ended with the Confederate surrender. And for nine days, Eli has wondered where his Papa goes to so early every day. Eli imagines him doing all kinds of things, but he isn't allowed to follow Papa because he is going to school, and as his mother reminds him, " have the hard earned right to learn...Masters locked away learning 'cause knowledge is its own freedom." 
Finally, though, on day ten, Papa wakes Eli up early and they join a procession of other formerly enslaved men and boys and head to the Charleston, South Carolina racetrack, once used for the entertainment white plantation owners. During the Civil War, the racetrack had become a prison where Confederates put captured Union soldiers, who were starved and treated so badly that even the enslaved women would try to sneak the men whatever morsels they could spare. 

Eli discovers that the men have been working to create a cemetery for the 257 dead Union soldiers who had been held in the racetrack. And it's here that Eli has a paintbrush put in his hands to help whitewash a fence with the other children. 

The next day, Eli is up early again, and heads out with his parents to join the procession other Black families heading to the racetrack, now a cemetery. Eli proudly carries the American flag, and the women carry flowers with which to decorate the newly dug graves. 
While this may be a work of historical fiction, the cemetery, called the Martyrs of the Race Track that was created in Charleston, South Carolina by formerly enslaved men, women, and children, is considered by some scholars to be the first observance of Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day. In her Author's Note, Henderson writes that she was inspired to write to story after seeing a photograph of about "200 Black children getting ready for what looked like a parade." Curiosity sparked, research led Henderson to the cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, where she learned that the Decoration Day parade to the former racetrack included over 10,000 newly freed enslaved people were led by about 3,000 Black children. Henderson chose the fictional Eli and his parents to tell their story.

A Day for Rememberin' is such a poignant story about how one community honored the men who they believed fought for them, but also, as Eli reminds readers, about the fear that enslaved people lived with every day, wondering if their loved one would come home at the end of the day, or be sold to someone without their knowing. 

And who better to illustrate this moving, affective story than Floyd Cooper. Using his signature method of oil erasure in earth tones of yellows and browns seems somehow so perfect for this story. The hazy effect of this method doesn't diminish the details and the closeups of people faces really captures their different emotions. 

Besides the Author's Note, back matter includes a short essay on The Roots of Decoration Day, a Timeline of Decoration Day/Memorial Day, a list of other cities claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, Endnotes, and a Select Bibliography. 

David W. Blight a scholar who believes that the birthplace of Decoration Day is Charleston, South Carolina. You can read two of his interesting articles about this HERE and HERE.

Full disclosure: I read a digital watermarked ARC received from the publisher.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+

In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001

1 comment:

  1. This is such a fascinating story! I look forward to getting my hands on this book!